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After years of delay, the EPA has requested public input on two proposals for addressing Utah's regional haze plan, which environmentalists say would do little to clear gunk from the skies of the state's national parks.
The Environmental Protection Agency's first proposal would approve the state's plan, which would not require Rocky Mountain Power to install new pollution controls on its coal-fired Hunter and Huntington plants. The plan would instead credit the utility for the reduction in nitrogen oxide emissions that resulted from the closure of its Carbon plant, which RMP shuttered after deciding that it would be too expensive to upgrade the aging plant with newly required pollution controls.
The second proposal would reject this portion of the state's plan and replace it with a federal plan that would require the installation of additional pollution controls to reduce emissions of nitrogen oxide from the existing plants.
The Sierra Club, the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) and HEAL Utah issued a joint release saying the federal plan is "the only option that offers a path to meaningful improvements to haze problems in Utah's national parks." The groups will be pushing the EPA to roll out its federal implementation plan because it would result in a greater reduction of emissions than the state's proposal.
A 60-day public comment period will begin when the EPA proposals are posted to the Federal Register, and the EPA will host a public hearing on its proposals in Salt Lake City on Jan. 26.
Cory MacNulty, NPCA's southwest region program manager, said the NPCA was disappointed that the EPA continues to consider the state's alternative but pleased to see the agency was keeping its options open and moving toward a final decision.
"We of course would have been happier to see one proposal that would have required best available retrofit technology," she said. "We are disappointed that they didn't choose the plan that we see as the only clear choice, but we are pleased to see that they left that option open."
Other groups were less happy. "The proposal is bizarre and disappointing," said Jeremy Nichols, climate and energy program director for Wild Earth Guardians. "The EPA is basically saying the state's plan, which doesn't actually reduce haze-forming nitrogen oxide emissions, is OK, but that a federal plan, which would achieve considerable emission reductions, is also OK."
Regardless of the decision, MacNulty said, she was glad to see the EPA taking steps to resolve an issue that environmentalists feel has been delayed for far too long long enough that the NPCA, the Sierra Club and HEAL Utah filed suit against the EPA in July.
MacNulty praised the EPA plan for including selective catalytic reduction as a technology that the plants at Hunter and Huntington would be required to install. She said the NPCA's experts have reviewed the currently available technologies and concluded that selective catalytic reduction costs less than other possibilities while still vastly improving visibility in the parks.
But RMP still believes the state's plan is the best option, said company spokesman Paul Murphy. He held that with the closure of the Carbon power plant, the state has already achieved the EPA's goals. And, he said, the installation of selective catalytic reduction would do little to further improve visibility, but would cost RMP customers $700 million.
The Regional Haze Rule, developed as a component of the Clean Air Act, is meant to protect 156 national parks and wilderness areas from visibility-impairing pollution by mandating upgrades at the nation's oldest and dirtiest power plants.
Development of the state's regional haze plan began in 1991, according to Bryce Bird, director of the Utah Division of Air Quality. When the EPA created its Regional Haze Rule in 1999, it incorporated the pre-existing plan in the state's implementation plan, which called for fire and dust suppression and decreased emissions from regional industry and mobile sources.
In 2005, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned part of the Regional Haze Rule on the basis that the rule had required a Best Available Retrofit Technology calculation that was outdated. Utah revised its implementation plan to meet the new requirements in 2008, but that revision was rejected by the EPA in 2012.
Under the Clean Air Act, the EPA is required to implement its own federal plan within two years of rejecting a state plan if the state does not supply an acceptable plan in the same time frame. But the 2014 deadline came and went without official action one way or the other from the EPA.
EPA Region 8 spokesman Rich Mylott said the EPA had delayed its decision while it waited for Utah to finish another draft of the plan, which he said the EPA received in June.
In September, the EPA announced a new schedule of deadlines that called for a decision on the state plan by Nov. 19 and final action by March 31, 2016. That schedule was never finalized by the EPA, but MacNulty said she believes the EPA's Dec. 16 decision to propose both plans was a result of the lawsuit. She said she expects that the EPA still aims to finalize its action on the plan by June 1 the final deadline established in the environmentalists' legal settlement with the EPA.
EPA Region 8 asserted in a statement that giving the public 60 days to publicly vet the two proposals is necessary "due to the complex nature of the state's plan and the air quality analyses it contains" and "to ensure our final decision is based on a thorough assessment of technical information and comments."
MacNulty said the NPCA won't complain about the EPA's delayed decision on the state plan.
"Given the amount of time that it has taken to get to this point," she said, "a month's delay is fairly minor."